Picture of the Month: Live & Direct from Dublin

‘The Liffey Swim’ - Jack Yeats 1923

‘The Liffey Swim’ – Jack Yeats 1923

I think this is only the second time I have written a Picture of the Month right in front of the picture itself. The first time was in Buenos Aires in front of a Frida Kahlo self-portrait with monkeys. As I referred to this Jack B. Yeats painting [‘The Liffey Swim’ 1923] in my last post I thought I’d pick up the baton with it, here in the National Gallery of Ireland on Merrion Square, Dublin.

I spent a bit of time yesterday along the Quays and looking at the Liffey, and had a chat with my son about the notion of swimming in this river. He had been watching a documentary about swimming the channel between Scotland and Ireland just before. I mentioned this painting as evidence that people were known to brave the Liffey.

Yeats-Liffey-Swim 1923 painting national gallery ireland

The painting has a real sense of event around it, with spectators filling the bottom left half beneath the strong diagonal that bisects the composition from top left to bottom right. We see a mixed gender crowd (a bare-headed blonde woman prominent near the front) filling the pavement, filling both decks of a bus or tram, filling the bridge and the opposite quay. This is 1923 (or at least painted that year), the first half of which was the time of the Irish Civil War, so to see a crowd united in a joyous occasion must have been resonant.

The image and composition remind me of an early 20th century English painting of an East End music hall (perhaps Sickert? or was it Bomberg?? – I’ll try to find it another time*). And the overall style has something of the Camden Town Group about it – a muddy palette and loose, free brushwork. Yeats was not born in Dublin but in London in 1871, so was 52 at the time of painting this.

The swimmers are swimming crawl in what gives the impression of a strong current. One of the brightest colours is the orange in the part of the water closest to us. The figure nearest to us, a cap-wearing man leaning on the wall to look down into the river, is sliced in half, only his cap, a bit of hair protruding at the back, his neck and shoulder visible, cropped in a photograph-like way.

We can see the face and open mouth of one swimmer as he takes a crawl breath – it has something of Munch’s ‘Skrik’ (Scream) about it though is probably more about the breath of life than anything dark.

No Dublin rain in sight – the skies are blue with some high white clouds.

Apparently this swim was an annual event from 1920. [My brother-in-law Des subsequently informed me that it is still an annual event.] As the War of Independence raged from 1919-1921 at least one, possibly two of these races took place in wartime which indicates life must have gone on during the conflict. It ended in July 1921 so if the race happens in July or later and the one depicted was 1922 not 1923 this would be the first one free from British rule in the capital of a modern sovereign Irish state.

For all I know Yeats may have had little political intent – he was known to be interested in sporting themes (horse-racing etc.) – but I am going to take this as a depiction of joy, hope, energy and freedom.


* It was Bomberg – a painting from the Ben Uri collection, from just three years earlier

david bomberg, ghetto theatre, 1920, ben uri

‘Ghetto Theatre’ (1920) – David Bomberg, [Ben Uri collection]

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2 comments so far

  1. […] the moment in wild/open water swimming and imagined swimming the Liffey. I told him about Yeats’ energetic painting of a swimming race in the National Gallery of […]

  2. […] Someone should make it their mission to get the painting back to Ireland and into the National Gallery in Dublin for all to enjoy. It is as much a part of the national heritage as Paul Henry’s ‘Launching the Currach’ (which sat above the fireplace in my mother-in-law’s good room) and Jack Yeats’ ‘The Liffey Swim’. […]


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